What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a key component to disease prevention and optimal health. Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin but a “prohormone”, which is produced by the cholesterol in our bodies and influences the entire body via receptors that respond to it. These receptors are found in every type of human cell. They convert the ultraviolet rays that strike our skin into the hormone vitamin D, which is then further converted to its active compound in our liver and kidneys. Science has found that vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium and bone formation as well as the repair and maintain functions within our body including regulating the immune system and much more. In fact, scientists have identified a total of nearly 3,000 genes that are regulated by vitamin D.
If you consider that the body has around 25,000 genes and vitamin D has been shown to influence nearly 3,000 of them, you can see the immense impact that this vitamin has on your health.
Physicians for years have under-prescribed vitamin D. The “normal threshold level of 30 ng/ml that has been prescribed is dangerously low. You see, when guidelines of vitamin levels first came out in the early 1920’s, they were developed based on the minimum amount of a vitamin that you needed to take to prevent a vitamin deficiency. In vitamin D’s case, this was to prevent rickets—and the minimum amount (about 400 IU’s of D3 a day) isn’t the levels needed to achieve maximal health. So, although the official guidelines say 30-100 ng/ml is the “normal” level, physicians typically don’t see improvements in many health parameters until vitamin D levels of 70-110 ng/ml are reached.
Types: D2, D3, and the Sun
There are a few different types of vitamin D. D1, D2, and D3. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is the type that is produced in our body from sun exposure. Vitamin D2(ergocalciferol) is in most multivitamins and what is used to fortify food such as skim milk. Vitamin D2 is synthetic. Vitamin D1 is a 1:1 mixture of lumisterol and vitamin D2. The term D1 is an out dated use of description of vitamin D so you may not see it appear in most literature.
Why is vitamin D important?
There are several important functions of vitamin D. The most important of these is its ability to regulate the absorption of calcium and phosphorous. Also, it promotes a normal immune system function. I cannot begin to stress how important this is. There are other functions of vitamin D, such as promoting the development of bone and teeth, and most importantly its ability to reduce inflammation within the body.
So why worry about vitamin D levels? Simply because it’s a very common deficiency. It is also more important than most people realize. It’s functions have a direct impact of your mood, brain health, and many autoimmune diseases, including cancer.
It is also very important to get your levels checked by the doctor. Just because you are consuming enough of it does not actually mean that your body is getting what it needs. vitamin D is a fat-soluble hormone, which means your body must be able to absorb it. If you have gut issues, like leaky gut (which can be caused by an intolerance to foods such as gluten and dairy), you may not be absorbing the vitamins and nutrients that you need, including vitamin D.
What vitamin D deficiency can cause
There have been many studies related to vitamin D, and one, in particular, determined that 36% of healthy adolescents and 57% of adults in the United States have a vitamin D deficiency. Interestingly, this study was complete when the recommended levels of vitamin D were lower, so those numbers are quite a bit higher in more recent studies. Chances are higher that YOU have a Vitamin D deficiency.
Multiple studies have been done on the impact of vitamin D and your health. These studies have linked Vitamin D deficiency with:
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Type I Diabetes
- Other Auto Immune Diseases
If you have a severe vitamin D deficiency, you may experience some of the following:
- tiredness, aches and pains, and a general sense of not feeling well
- severe bone or muscle pain or weakness that may cause difficulty climbing stairs or getting up from the floor or a low chair, or cause you to walk with a waddling gait
- stress fractures, especially in your legs, pelvis, and hips
How you get Vitamin D
There are three primary ways that you can get vitamin D. First, let’s talk about getting it through the things you eat. There are only a few foods that contain vitamin D naturally. Due to this, many foods that we consume are fortified in order for us to reach our recommended amounts of vitamin D. Here is the list:
- egg yolk
- milk – including most Almond, rice and coconut milks (fortified)
- cereal (fortified)
- yogurt (fortified)
- orange juice (fortified)
You are not able to get the adequate levels of vitamin D from food alone, which leads me to the second way. The sun. When your body is exposed to direct sunlight, specifically the UV-B rays, your body synthesizes and produces the vitamin D from these UV rays. This is the most natural and most effective way to get your vitamin D.
There are “caveats” with getting your dose of D from the sun.
- The time of day. Mid-day, when the sun is hottest is also when your skin produces more vitamin D.
- Where you live. I will expand on this a little more in a minute, but you will produce more vitamin D the closer you live to the equator.
- The color of your skin. Pale skin produces vitamin D quicker than darker skin.
- The amount of skin you expose. Think of this as solar panels, the more you expose the more vitamin D your body will produce.
So, let’s talk about where you live. If you live above the 37 degree latitude line (this is most of the United States), you really need to pay attention! Harvard Medical School did a good bit of research and found that, “Except during the summer months, the skin makes little if any vitamin D from the sun at latitudes above 37 degrees north or below 37 degrees south of the equator. People who live in these areas are at relatively greater risk for vitamin D deficiency.” This is because the further you get away from the equator, the greater the angle of the sun’s rays and the UVB rays are deflected at such an angle that there will not be enough UVB for your body to produce vitamin D. If you happen to live about 45 degrees (basically the top row of states in the US), there are studies that show that the summer sun is too week to provide the UVB rays for optimal levels of vitamin D production.
The third way we can get vitamin D is through supplements, which most people do need. Unless, of course you are spending your winters on a beach in the Caribbean!
Vitamin D and Autoimmune Diseases
It is becoming more known among the scientific community that all autoimmune diseases begin and end in the gut. Our guts are lined with only one cell layer and can easily be penetrated by over the counter medications like Ibuprofen or Naprosyn and lectins in foods or a few glasses of wine. Stem cells within the gut rapidly grow to seal these “gaps” made in the lining and they require vitamin D to grow.
An autoimmune disease is when the immune system attacks the tissues within the body instead of invading pathogens. Vitamin D prevents this confusion through the promotion of regulatory T cells. These T cells are responsible for the differentiation of invaders from the body’s cells. Thus, preventing the autoimmune disease.
Adequate amount to prevent disease
It has been estimated that 35 IU’s per pound of body weight is a good estimate in how much vitamin to get to prevent chronic disease. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin meaning that it is stored in fatty tissue within the body, however if it is not replenished then amounts can decline and therefore we need to supplement in the months where you can’t adequately obtain vitamin D from the sun.
Issues with Sunscreen
We all know that sunscreen blocks the UVB rays. This is why we slather it on, so we don’t get “burned”. However, sunscreen virtually eliminates your body’s ability to produce any vitamin D because of its ability to block UVB radiation from your skin not allowing the skin to produce it.
I am not advocating everyone to go out and spend hours in the sun getting burnt and developing cancerous cells. Quite the opposite, science tells us that you only need enough exposure to turn your skin the slightest of pink. This equates to about 10-20 minutes in the middle of a summer day. During this amount of time your body can produce 10,000 to 25,000 IU of vitamin D. Further exposure will not produce any more vitamin D but will cause aging and increased risk to skin cancer.
Important to remember when supplementing
When supplementing vitamin D, it is recommended to also take vitamin K2 because they work synergistically as does vitamin E and vitamin A. The body uses vitamin D to absorb calcium and needs the vitamin K to transfer it to your bones. You can best accomplish this with a multivitamin. Also, make sure that your supplement (and anything that is fortified) is D3, not D2 (which is labeled as D). Look specifically for D3 on the label.
How/why I thought I had enough
I grew up on the Jersey shore. I spend my summer days sailing on the bay and when I wasn’t sailing, I was at the beach or boardwalk. In the winter my family always vacationed to Florida. I remember getting sunburn after sunburn. Following my diagnosis, the doctor tested for vitamin deficiencies including vitamin D. How could I possibly be deficient in vitamin D when I spent my life on the water? By the way, did I mention following high school I enlisted into the Coast Guard? This just couldn’t be possible. Guess what? I was very low. This, my friends, explains why I have multiple autoimmune diseases. But I still couldn’t figure how until I read about the sun strength at different distances from the equator and I spent my life at 40 degrees. In the Coast Guard I was stationed higher at 45 degrees. Thankfully I have resided at 34 degrees for the last 15 years.